Anindya's Blog

Kumortuli- The Goddess makers

Posted on: October 4, 2010

Durga puja, the most popular festival of Kolkata is few days away. The bengali people all over the world are getting ready to celebrate this 5 day festival. The preparation of this 5 days festival starts at least  3/4 months from the date of Puja. One of the major preparation is the Durga idol. In Kolkata the place where the idol is created called  Kumortuli.

Kumortuli (also spelt Kumartuli, or the archaic spelling Coomartolly) is a traditionally potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata. This Kolkata neighbourhood, not only supplies clay idols of gods and goddesses to barowari pujas in Kolkata and its neighborhoods, but a number of idols are exported. the term “Kumar” meaning a potter and “tuli” a locality.


Kumortuli the clay model-makers haven, is older than Calcutta, which grew out of three little villages, viz., Gobindapore, Kalikutta and Sutanooti way back in 1690. The history of the Kumartuli potter can be traced back to Krishnanagar in South Bengal. To begin with, near about the middle of the seventeenth century, potters in search of better livelihood came from Krishnanagar to Gobindapore, a prosperous village on the banks of the river Bhagirathi (now the River Hooghly), to eke out a living by making earthen ware pots, clay toys and cooking utensils for household use.

After the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The East India Company decided to build new settlement Fort William at the site of the Gobindapur village. Most of the existing population shifted to Sutanuti. While such neighbourhoods as Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata became the centres of the local rich, there were other areas that were developed simultaneously. The villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikata developed to give rise to the later day metropolis of Calcutta.

Holwell, under orders from the Directors of the British East India Company, allotted ‘separate districts to the Company’s workmen.’ These neighbourhoods in the heart of the Indian quarters acquired the work-related names – Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Collotollah (the place of oil men), Chuttarparah (the place of carpenters), Aheeritollah (cowherd’s quarters), Coomartolly (potters’ quarters) and so on.

The Durga Puja festival in autumn was an annual event in the homes of wealthy aristocrats. Potters came all the way from Krishnanagar, braving the perils of a river voyage, to mould the images of the gods and goddesses for the Durga Puja festival. By about the end of the eighteenth century, as the ways of the rich inspired the commoner, the annual worship of goddess Durga gained popularity. In 1790, as recorded in the Friend of India (now The Statesman), a dozen Brahmins formed the first ever committee to celebrate Durga Puja in Calcutta. They collected money in the form of a punitive tax (subscription), had the image of the deity made at Kumartuli and organized the first ever community Durga Puja festival. As the trend caught on, making images of gods and goddesses became a lucrative livelihood for the potter-turned-artisan.

Just where history ends and legend begins no one is quite sure. Kumartuli’s clay model-makers claim their descent from people who made images of Durga for Maharaja Krishna Chandra of Krishnanagar. However, many historians are of the opinion that the ancestors of the artisans were potters who had drifted in during the days of the Raj but the power of legend still overwhelms the ordinary visitor.


Making of a model is a routine affair for a potter at Kumartuli. To begin with, a skeleton of the figure is made first with small wooden planks and strips of bamboo. It stands on a wooden pedestal. The idol is roughly shaped with straw and tied with jute strands. It is one of the most significant steps in the art of clay model-making, as the final shape of the image depends on how well the straw dummy is conceived. A thick coating of clay, mixed with rice husk is applied over the idol. Then it is left to dry for a couple of days in the sun. A compound of sand-clay and jute fibre is smeared over the first coating and the surface is smoothed with a piece of wet cloth.

The delicate modelling procedure is taken up as soon as the figures have dried up completely. The head and fingers, both made with cement dices, originally developed in terra-cotta moulds, are fixed to the neck and hands respectively with clay paste. The joints of limbs are wrapped in pieces of cloth previously soaked in clay solution. The figure is white-washed two or three times over with chalk solution. When they have dried the traditional base colour — red, white, yellow, pink, blue and black, according to preference is painted all over the body. The eyes, brows and the lip give the expression on the face. The dress is gorgeous. So is the jewellery. The idols are embellished more often with shimmering gold foil and silver filigree ornaments.

Most of them shape the icons in the traditional mould, clinging desperately to time-honoured traditions in an age of modernity. By and large the gods and goddess have features ingrained in the popular imagination through myth, legend and literature. Thus, they are made in two distinct styles, either in the Bangla or Do-Bhashi mould.

The contours of the Bangla mould or visage is triangular, with a square chin, the hooked nose of a parrot and bamboo-leaf eyes and brows that extend impossibly from the bridge of the nose to the hairline. The Do-Bhasi mould, on the other hand is much softer. The complexion, too, is idealized like molten gold, more often yellow as the sun at crack of dawn. The model-makers have a common theme. They depict the battle between Durga and Mahisasura as dictated in the Puranas (ancient texts).


Nearly eighty per cent of the community puja idols in Calcutta are made at Kumartuli by lesser known artisans, who strive to make something new and innovative in their sphere of endeavour. The idols are generally ordered well in advance and there are few for off-the-shelf sale.

Nowadays, Kumortuli’s clientele has extended to America, Europe, Middle East and Africa, among the Indian communities living there.

In 2006, Kumortuli supplied 12,300 clay idols of goddess Durga. This potter’s town supplies idols to about 90 countries worldwide with new nations joining the list every year

In Kolkata, the icon-artists mostly dwell in poor living conditions. At present many well known sculptors of Kolkata are also in the business of making Durga idols for various puja committees across the country and abroad.

(Data source: Wikipedia, India Profile)


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